NIH awards $13.4M grant to support cognitive health research via mobile tools

The grant recipient, a Penn State research lab, will also be partnering with Sage Bionetworks to develop a standardized suite of tools for similar projects in the future.
By Dave Muoio
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The National Institutes of Health’s support of digital health technologies and research continues with its latest grant, a $13.4 million award to Pennsylvania State University.

According to an article from Penn State’s news group, the money will support an investigation that uses mobile devices and applications to explore the development of late-in-life neurological conditions. In addition, the grant will finance the development of a suite of standardized digital tools researchers can leverage when incorporating mobile devices into future research projects.

According to the university, the research could take the form of a smartphone app in which users enter information about their stress levels and play a brief brain game. The research team team would then assess their cognitive performance in the game against stress or other inputs to gain insight about brain function.

What’s the impact

A key factor of this digital approach is its flexibility. By having participants conduct the majority of their input through an app on their smartphone, researchers can avoid the time and money spent bringing hundreds or thousands of people to a study site.

“Using these new technologies, we’ll be able to obtain high-precision data about the mental and cognitive function of research study participants in the context of their everyday lives,” Martin Sliwinski, the Gregory H. Wolf Professor of Aging Studies at Penn State and director of its Center for Healthy Aging, whose lab was awarded the grant, said in a statement. "This allows us to gather data as they go about their everyday lives, which goes beyond what we can already do in a lab.”

Beyond the immediate investigation into cognitive health, the grant money will also be put toward the development of standardized mobile platform for future research using these technologies. According to the university, the construction of this research infrastructure will be achieved through a partnership with the non-profit research organization Sage Bionetworks.

"We'll be designing a suite of tools that are ready for scientists to begin using immediately in their research, with no programming or technical knowledge needed on their part," Sliwinski said. "But it will also be a code base that can be built upon if a researcher needed to customize and tailor it to fit their work. We want other labs to be able to innovate it and make it their own.”

What’s the trend

The NIH’s support of digital tools for health has taken a variety of shapes, whether it be grants for promising startups — such as HealthRhythms’ smartphone-based behavioral intervention — or the kickoff of its ongoing All of Us Research Program, which just recently boasted more than 100,000 participants in five months of open enrollment.